The Stanford Prison Experiment divided a group of students into guards and prisoners and followed how the roles developed.
Stern contributed the following excellent account of the dynamics of group behaviors on the Corporeal Fantasy Forum
I was always very interested in Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment as a stark demonstration of how situation is able to transform an individual’s (and a group’s) behavior in a startlingly short period of time (the experiment was halted after 6 days, but the abuse from the guards really began much sooner). First of all, it’s obviously interesting because it says a lot about the dynamic within institutions such as prisons, which even in more recent times haven’t changed a great deal (a particularly egregious and notorious example being Abu Ghraib, which Zimbardo also studied). But more broadly, it has some interesting implications about free will. Perhaps some of these traits were already dormant in some of the participants (and in the guards at Abu Ghraib), but ultimately, it seems to have been the situation and the hierarchy which was responsible for drawing these characteristics out of the participants. In the video I’ve posted below, one of the mock guards from the experiment reflects that whilst he was doing what he was doing, he didn’t question it; it was only after it was over he really considered his actions . In other words, it was only when had been removed from the situation and was judging his behavior with a less extraordinary situation as a frame of reference that he made a negative judgement, so his principles and values were governed by his environment. That isn’t to say he is necessarily a fickle man, as we are all products of our environment. But it raises questions about who we think we are ourselves and how conscious our decisions really are. Actions I think are almost certainly not based on something as abstract as principle.
In the experiment situation, arguably the root of the guard’s behavior was the will to life – by dominating other people and exercising their power, the guards were reinforcing the power they already felt they had. Evolutionarily, this kind of suppression would secure resources for the person/people dominating by reducing competition (similar dynamics can be observed in gorillas, when the silverback chooses his mate(s) and is enraged when his monopoly is threatened). One possible conclusion is that the act of establishing hierarchy is thus arguably a pre-emptive effort to secure a monopoly on resources for the group that endeavored to establish the hierarchy, even if sometimes it takes a less aggressive form than in the Stanford prison experiment or Abu Ghraib. (I’m sure the issue is much more multi-faceted than I present it here, so excuse my amateur pop-psychology conclusions….)
Zimbardo’s conclusions that people don’t inherently possess “goodness” or “evil” are arguably supported by the higher crime rates of areas which have a low socio-economic status. I recently lived in a place rife with robbery, drug-use, drug-dealing, etc. All these things were obviously linked – it was a poor area (in the town in which it is situated, there is no industry anymore, the only thing really giving it any life is the university), and so the people turned to drugs. This created a demand for illegal recreational substances, and naturally, some of the more entrepreneurial people supplied those substances. This in turn caused robberies – people desperate for money for these substances. I heard of a man near where I lived who would provide heroin to people for going out and robbing people on the street, then take their valuables back to him. These people perhaps do have underlying traits but under different circumstances, these are not traits which would have an opportunity to flourish, or at least they wouldn’t manifest in the same way.
This is the interesting thing about the experiment to me; a person doesn’t necessarily have a particular essence but will adapt their behaviors depending on their circumstances, environment and experiences.
And what is also interesting is that in many ways, the prison/guard dynamic is a microcosm of the dynamic present in social hierarchies on a larger scale, across the Western world at least (I can’t talk about other parts of the world having not lived in them). Down to class distinction in individual countries (which whilst being quite detailed, can be reduced essentially to a dichotomy of impoverished vs. prosperous) and the (often brutal) interactions between those different factions of society, or on an even larger scale, a richer country’s interactions with a poorer country’s (what immediately springs to mind is Trump’s view of North Korea as a means of demonstrating his dominance to the rest of the world – an easy target, even if not an innocent one, due to the imbalance of whatever fight has the potential to transpire). What’s interesting in politics though is that the buffers that exist within bureaucratic systems make it easier to commit even huger atrocities than what can be observed in institutions like Abu Ghraib and that simulated in the experiment. For example, the exploitation of cheap labour in Eastern countries, or even the ongoing deconstruction of the welfare state in the UK – the kind of things which causes mass suffering, but which goes unseen by anybody not on the “front line”, and so which easily finds itself in the back of people’s minds.
I think the Zimbardo experiment goes hand in hand with the Milgram experiment; Zimbardo shows us what happens when hierarchy gives the powerful opportunity to exercise their dominance over the powerless, and Milgram shows us how buffers might enable such a dynamic (having an authority figure absolve one of responsibility, gradual commitment, being physically separated from the consequences of actions, etc).
There are examples I see on a regular basis here in the North of England which can only be explained by the presence of buffers: the systematic privatisation of state-owned services (such as the ongoing sale of the National Health Service, and rail transport), and the slashing and sanctioning of benefits (people are having heart attacks after being declared fit for work by Department of Work and Pensions, and I recall a case where a disabled woman in Glasgow had to crawl up the Job Centre steps in order to be on time for her meeting after being refused a ramp, otherwise her benefits would have been sanctioned).
One buffer that might enable this is the buffer of physical separation: the people who make the decisions about these kinds of things are based down in London, are well-paid, and almost certainly don’t personally use most of the services they dismantle (rather than the NHS, they will use private healthcare, they don’t require benefits, they won’t rely on public transport, etc), and they don’t keep a circle of friends/acquaintances who use those services either (due to the socioeconomic divide, which sees further social divide since the rich generally aren’t in the environment of the poor and don’t come into contact with them). What this means is, they don’t see the consequences of their decisions first hand, rather, they might learn what they’re doing via an “inconvenient bad-for-PR” news report or a protest.
This buffer also applies to the middle-class population: benefits claimants are somewhat demonized in the press, and since middle-class people generally don’t need to claim benefits, they can’t imagine why someone would, and attribute that need to a personal failing, rather than a failing of the system. This is really a form of scapegoating to keep the drones arguing amongst themselves, leaving the real culprits to carry on as usual, of course. Foreigners are similarly used as scapegoats, and this is also partly down to there being a buffer: we as working class British people (generally) have not seen first hand the terrors of the situations in Syria and other parts of the Middle-East, and so it is easy for certain figures (Farage, Hopkins, etc) to exploit this lack of understanding and turn people against refugees.
Other examples of buffers are those mentioned previously (“gradual commitment”, in which a person is teased into doing something step-by-step, an “agentic state” in which a person sees an authority figure as absolving them of personal responsibility, etc). Examples of these can all be found in Milgram’s Obedience experiment (the procedure of which are described here) – the participants started “shocking” the confederate at a low voltage, and gradual they increased it to a fatal voltage, and when questioning what they were doing, some participants were reassured when Milgram told them he and only he would have responsibility. They also obeyed more if they perceived Milgram as a “legitimate authority figure”; for example if he wore a white coat and looked a bit scientific, as opposed to a casual dress. [I was wrong about the “experimenter” in the setup being Milgram himself – doesn’t matter though]
Stanford Prison Experiment video here